A first! Grizzly bear trapped on Bitterroot Valley golf course

Photo by Jason Lehtola

After a grizzly bear took a liking to its fairways, a Bitterroot Valley golf course may need to change its name from “Whitetail” to “Silvertip.”

On Sunday, golf pro Jason Lehtola called Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks with news that the bear trap they’d left on Whitetail Golf Course had a grizzly bear in it.

“FWP kind of poo-pooed his ‘thought it was a griz.’ But when they showed up, they said, ‘Oh my god, I think you’re right,’ ” said Whitetail board president Randy Hodgson.

The Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge surrounds the Whitetail Golf Course so wildlife sightings are not uncommon. But bears are, and grizzlies are all but unheard of in the Bitterroot.

“The documentation of when this occurred in the past is real sketchy. But I don’t know that there’s one been caught,” Hodgson said. “We have a lot of deer, and periodically, you’ll have a moose. We actually had an elk down there this year, which is pretty unusual. But I don’t know of any bear that has ever been seen on the course before.”

Hodgson posted photos of the 2-year-old bear in the trap Sunday morning on his Facebook page, describing the 249-pound male as a “silvertip.” He was astounded to see that his post already had 600 shares by Monday.

Most of the commenters made jokes – “Now that’s what I call a bogey” – while a few shared stories of grizzly sightings in the 1970s. Others claimed that several grizzlies live in the region.

“There was several comments on Facebook that you know you’re in Montana when the pro shop sells bear spray,” Hodgson said.

Grizzly bears are established in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and a smaller group inhabits the Cabinet-Yaak. Wildlife biologists have tracked collared bears traveling hundreds of miles from the north down toward the Bitterroot. But no grizzlies are known to inhabit the Bitterroot region, although it’s an area once targeted for reintroduction.

Still, it’s a surprise to find a grizzly bear in the Bitterroots, let alone in the populated valley.

Hodgson said the bear had been living in the area for a few weeks but hadn’t bothered people and hadn’t even been seen. Golf course employees just saw what the bear left behind: four broken flagpoles, newly dug holes and scat.

So they called FWP on Friday, and by Sunday, their problem was solved.

Defenders of Wildlife grizzly bear specialist Erin Edge said a sub-adult male was just the kind of grizzly that people would expect to see in strange places. Young males tend to wander away from home to find and establish a new territory, especially now when they’re in search of a lot of food as they prepare for winter’s hibernation.

Region 2 Wildlife Chief Mike Thompson said the captured bear would be released in the lower Blackfoot River drainage to join others on the southern edge of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

“Bears have been expanding from the NCDE in particular in recent years, so it’s not too shocking to have a bear show up in the Bitterroot,” Thompson said. “Whether they’re grizzly bears or black bears, they still respond to artificial food attractants. So if people don’t want to attract a bear, keep things picked up and contain your attractants.”

Edge said that black bear conflicts in the Bitterroot have been high and now grizzly bears are showing up. That’s why her organization offers education and an incentive program to help residents buy electric fencing.

“This was a huge surprise. But the department is saying you can expect grizzly bears anywhere in western Montana at this point. That’s why we have been trying to work with several communities in the Bitterroot on sanitation issues to prevent conflict,” Edge said.

To learn more about bear-proofing and the electric fence incentive program, go to https://defenders.org/got-grizzlies.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com